Historical Reflections

HISTORICAL REFLECTION

 

SUBMARINE HEROES

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of a Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the USS Sculpin, during the 9th War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, CAPT Cromwell, alone of the entire Task Group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled Fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold at Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing an opportunity for the crew to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission, at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the US Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

CAPT John Philip Cromwell
Medal Of Honor Recipient

 

Submarine Hero - John Philip Cromwell

by Edward C. Whitman

CAPT John Philip Cromwell was the most senior submariner awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II and one of the three submarine officers who received it posthumously. In some ways similar to his fellow honoree, Howard Gilmore, Cromwell consciously chose to sacrifice his own life to safeguard the lives of others in a tragic incident that took place in November 1943. And then, the tragedy of his death on USS Sculpin (SS-191) was further compounded by an irony of fate that is still pondered sadly today. 

John Cromwell was born in Henry, Illinois, on 11 September 1901 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with the class of 1924. He served in the battleship USS Maryland (BB-46) and in several submarines, eventually commanding USS S-20 (SS-125). At the beginning of World War II, he was on the staff of Commander, Submarines Pacific, running Submarine Divisions 203 and 44. Later he was also assigned command of Submarine Division 43, with additional duty in command of Submarine Division 44, flying his pennant in Sculpin

By mid-1943, the tide had clearly turned in the Pacific War, and the Allies had begun to fight their way back westward across the island chains to Japan. The tactical and torpedo problems that hobbled the Submarine Force in 1942 had nearly all been solved, and the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign against both enemy merchants and warships was sinking impressive totals of Japanese tonnage. A key factor in this success was the significant code-breaking advantage enjoyed by the United States. This is a fascinating story in its own right, but suffice it to say here that by late 1941, Navy cryptologists were able to read the principal Japanese naval code, JN-25, and decrypted enemy communications were disseminated regularly to higher echelons of the U.S. Fleet as highly-classified intelligence, code-named ULTRA. 

These ULTRA intercepts, which revealed Japanese intentions and corresponding fleet movements well before the fact, were a major contributor to the American victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 against overwhelming odds. Further, they were of enormous value to the U.S. submarine warfare campaign in predicting the tracks and positions of Japanese convoys and combatants, thus facilitating focused search efforts and concentrated attacks. Relevant ULTRA information was encoded and radioed from the operating authorities at Pearl Harbor and Australia to submarines on patrol. Security was so strict that only the Commanding Officers were allowed to decode the ULTRA messages, and the information they contained was restricted to target cues, without reference to their source. In particular, the fact that the United States was reading JN-25 - and other Japanese codes - was very close-held, and despite several near-leaks, was never compromised. 

In the fall of 1943, following the successful conclusion of the Solomons campaign, the United States made preparations to invade the Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific, an operation code-named GALVANIC. GALVANIC was scheduled to commence on 20 November with the invasion of Tarawa and Makin Islands by U.S. Marines, closely supported by powerful carrier striking forces. To interdict potential Japanese counter-moves, a force of 12 U.S. submarines - ten from Pearl Harbor and two from Brisbane - was sent west and north of the Gilberts to patrol off the major enemy bases at Truk and Kwajalein. Among the boats stationed around Truk were Sculpin, USS Searaven (SS-196), USS Spearfish (SS-190), and USS Apogon (SS-308). Sculpin was commanded by LCDR Fred Connaway, making his first war patrol, but CAPT John Cromwell was also onboard in case conditions warranted forming up a wolfpack with Searaven and either Spearfish or Apogon under his direction. As a senior officer, Cromwell was completely familiar with the plans for Operation GALVANIC and knew a lot more about ULTRA - and its source - than anyone else on Sculpin. It was his first war patrol also. 

After a brief overhaul, Sculpin left Pearl Harbor for her ninth war patrol on 5 November 1943. After refueling at Johnston Island on 7 November, she departed for her assigned station northeast of Truk. On 29 November, COMSUBPAC radioed Sculpin to order CAPT Cromwell to activate the wolfpack. When Sculpin failed to acknowledge the message, even after several repetitions, she was assumed - correctly - to have been lost at sea. It wasn't until after the war that the details of her loss - and that of John Cromwell - to enemy action became known from both Japanese sources and surviving crewmembers who had been prisoners of war. 

Sculpin had actually arrived on station on 16 November and made radar contact with a large, high-speed convoy on the night of the 18th. After making a fast surface run to get ahead of the quarry, LCDR Connaway submerged for an attack at dawn. As he started his final approach, however, his periscope was spotted by the enemy, and Connaway was forced to take Sculpin deep and allow the convoy to pass overhead. Then, he surfaced again to attempt another end run in broad daylight. Unfortunately, the Japanese destroyer IJS Yamagumo had lagged behind the convoy specifically to counter such a move and after forcing Connaway to make a quick dive, dropped a pattern of depth charges that - unbeknownst to the crew - damaged the depth gauge. Sculpin went deep and laid low for several hours. 

Around noon, Connaway attempted to bring Sculpin back to periscope depth, seeking another opportunity to attack. However, while coming up, the broken depth gauge stuck at 125 feet, confusing the diving officer, and causing the boat to broach the surface in full view of Yamagumo, which was still patrolling the area. As Sculpin crash-dived again, the Japanese destroyer dropped a string of 18 depth charges, severely damaging the boat and causing temporary loss of depth control. Numerous leaks developed in the hull, and so much water came onboard that the submarine was forced to run at high speed to maintain depth. This invited a second Japanese attack that did even more damage.

 

At this point, Connaway concluded that the only chance of saving his crew was to come to the surface and fight it out there. Sculpin surfaced, and with decks awash, her crew manned the deck guns. The result of this uneven contest was hardly in doubt. Yamagumo's first salvo hit Sculpin's conning tower, killing the entire bridge watch team, including Connaway and his executive and gunnery officers. The gun crew died almost instantly from shrapnel. The senior ship's officer surviving, a reserve lieutenant, ordered the boat scuttled and the crew to abandon ship. 

This action left CAPT Cromwell facing a fateful choice. With his personal knowledge of both ULTRA and GALVANIC, he realized immediately that to abandon ship and become a prisoner of the Japanese would create a serious danger of compromising these vital secrets to the enemy under the influence of drugs or torture. For this reason, he refused to leave the stricken submarine and gave his life to avoid capture. He and 11 others rode Sculpin on her final plunge to the bottom, where her secrets would be safe forever. 

Meanwhile, 42 members of Sculpin's crew - three officers and 39 enlisted men - were pulled from the sea by the Japanese, though one of the latter, badly wounded, was thrown back. The 41 survivors were taken to Truk and interrogated for ten days by Japanese intelligence officers. Then, the group was divided in half for transport back to Japan on two escort carriers - 21 on IJS Chuyo and 20 on IJS Unyo. Those on Unyo arrived in Japan in early December and spent the rest of the war working in the Ashio copper mines, after which they were repatriated to tell their story. The Americans on Chuyo, however, were further victimized by the malicious hand of fate. 

 

Four and a half years earlier, in May 1939, Sculpin had played a key role in the rescue of surviving crew members from her sister ship, USS Squalus (SS-192), which sank during a test dive off Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was Sculpin that discovered the location of the sunken boat and stood by to assist the rescue team under "Swede" Momsen that eventually saved 33 crewmen from a watery grave. [Ed. Note: See the review of Peter Maas's The Terrible Hours in the Winter 1999 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] After the rescue, Squalus was raised in a challenging salvage operation, refurbished, and renamed USS Sailfish. Under this name, she joined the Submarine Force of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in March 1941 and eventually survived the Pacific war with 12 war patrols to her credit. On 17 November 1943, Sailfish departed Pearl Harbor for her tenth war patrol, which took her south of Honshu. There, on the evening of 3 December, 240 miles southeast of Yokosuka - with some help from ULTRA - she intercepted a fast Japanese convoy consisting of several carriers and their escorts. In three separate attacks, starting shortly after midnight on the 4th and in the midst of a howling typhoon, Sailfish's Commanding Officer, Robert E. M. Ward, succeeded first in crippling, and then in sinking one of the carriers. As fate would have it, the paths of Sculpin and Squalus had crossed again. The victim was Chuyo, and only one of the Sculpin prisoners onboard survived. 

When the story of John Cromwell's heroic sacrifice was revealed in the accounts of the Sculpin survivors, COMSUBPAC VADM Charles Lockwood nominated him for the Medal of Honor. The award was approved and presented posthumously to Cromwell's widow after the war. Nearly a decade later, the Dealey-class destroyer-escort USS Cromwell (DE-1014), commissioned in November 1954, was named in his honor.

Dr. Whitman is Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

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